Monday, February 15, 2016

Extreme Touristing (A Winter Tour of DC Landmarks)

Back in December, when DC was enjoying tropical temperatures, I saw a deal for tickets to ride one of those double-decker sightseeing buses. Every time my kids spot one rolling down the street, the "can we, can we?" begging ensues. So when I saw the City Sights deal, I thought, "SOLD."

The only catch was, the tickets would expire at the end of February. Time of year didn't seem like an issue, as we've always done okay in the cold as long as we're bundled up. And we had several weekends and school holidays to choose from. But then there was snow - a lot of snow. And a few birthday parties... And Saturdays were out since Oliver has a weekly appointment we can't miss... And suddenly it was mid-February and there were exactly TWO DAYS we could possibly make it into the city for this tour: yesterday and today. The weather forecast was for arctic cold yesterday and snow today. So we did the tour yesterday.

We are crazy.

I only bought four tickets since I thought there was a chance we would be doing this on a weekday when Chris had to work. So he stayed inside where it was warm, and did lazy Sunday stuff like a normal person.

The City Sights kiosk is located in Union Station which, with its history and beautiful architecture, is a sight seeing stop, itself. George was particularly impressed by all of the 14 karat gold leafing on the ceiling (there was talk of "climbing up" for a better view...) 

image source
(here is a better one I'd have used if I didn't fear being sued...)

As an aside, I lived in walking distance of Union Station when I was a teenager (and the year after college when I couldn't afford my own place) and was around for its big re-opening in 1988. It was like having a neighborhood mini-mall and my friend Jenny and I ate many a slice of pizza at the food court after school. The restaurants and shops may have changed, but I always have that nostalgic feeling of "mine" when I'm in Union Station...

Back to our wintery jaunt... When we finally found the kiosk, the City Sights staff were super friendly and helpful. The lady who was processing our tickets said that two kept coming up as 48-hour passes even though we only paid for 24-hour. So she changed the other two to 48-hour as well, in case we wanted to come back the following day (epilogue: no fucking way...but STILL - so nice!) The guy at the kiosk chatted with George about thunder snow, suggested that Oliver (ten feet away, inspecting some scaffolding) was figuring out how get up to the ceiling to check out the gold leaf (told us there was over 70 lbs. in all!) and listened to the twins' non-sequitor anecdotes about school. Then they told us we had about 10 minutes to grab some hot cocoa before the next bus departed.

While waiting for beverages at Starbucks, we had a little excitement. One of the baristas asked me to get Oliver away from the window. Before I could even begin to imagine what he was doing, she explained sotto voce, that people were outside engaging in behavior that "children should NOT see." As she banged on the window ("Hey! We've got kids in here!") I explained that there were people doing something inappropriate and we should stay away from the window. Eleanor whispered to me that she thought she knew what they were doing: "probably smoking." George thought they were pulling down their pants. I said we didn't need to know specifics. Oliver told me he was sorry. I said he wasn't responsible for other people pulling down their pants. As long as his stay up, I'm happy. And as all of this transpired, I just kept thinking, "I'M HOME!"

When we arrived at the corner for bus pick up, the City Sights rep told us we JUST missed the bus (pointed to it disappearing into the distance). But the next bus didn't come for another 45 minutes, so he called the one we missed and then walked us to the spot where it would loop back around (about two blocks away). We bumped into a couple of other City Sights staffers and they joined our group (we had a full escort!). Two minutes later, we were on the bus (squabbling over who wanted to sit where of course) and ready to see the sights!

And who should be our tour guide, but our friend from the kiosk, Derek (that's his name). He was great! Friendly, funny AND he made the otherwise dry material (sorry, U.S. History buffs) interesting.

Here are some highlights (get ready for some world class photography...):

Look at all that scaffolding on the Capitol dome!

Look at all that ice on the Capitol reflecting pool!

Remember when we first got on the bus and weren't covered in icicles yet? SO FUN!

Totally! Let's do this every weekend!

We're having so much fun that we took a selfie with sun beams! #nofilter

Not sure why I took pictures of the National Museum of the American Indian - but it is a cool building. I'm embarrassed to say that the last time I was there, Oliver was six months old and I don't remember much about it. But I DO remember that the flush in the family restroom echoed so loudly on the tile, that my generally easy-going baby screamed for a solid 20 minutes (and only stopped being terrified of public bathroom flushes a year or two ago). Derek told us that a few years ago The New York Times named the museum restaurant, Mitsitam the best food on the National Mall. I vaguely remember going there for lunch - but as the mother of a six month old, it's doubtful that I actually ate anything. Derek also told us that the menu included items such snake soup.

"Do they make soup out of the snake's venom?"

George had comments for pretty much everything Derek told us, and after a half hour of this, was offered the opportunity to run the tour.

G smiled for a photo op - but in the end, he politely declined.

Oliver was starting to feel the cold and asked me to sit next to him.
I made him pay with a selfie.

Someone asked about the Webster School as we passed it. Derek explained that it was a masonry school built in 1881 and it was named after Daniel Webster - not Webster from the TV show. Between all of the foreign tourists and my children, I may have been the only one on the bus who laughed.

Also - how about this photo journalistic tour of DC? I'm thinking coffee table book...

This is Derek! He's the best. Make sure to get on the City Sights bus when he's running the tour.
Behind him is the FBI building.

I tried to get a picture of Ford's Theater - but my fingers were starting to go numb at this point of the tour and it was more like "ord's Theater." One new thing I learned was where John Wilkes Booth made his getaway. Derek pointed out the alley (a few doors down from J. Crew).

Here is a picture of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
And my finger.

I titled this one Still Life with Washington Monument and Frozen Tourists. See - they're frozen, so they're still. Get it?!

Then my phone shut down, which is weird since the battery wasn't close to dying... I can only conclude that it got too cold and said, "yeah - time to go back in your pocket, Kate. I'm out." I was having trouble bending my fingers by now, so who knows if I could have taken pictures anyway.

It was hard to enjoy the rest of the tour as we slowly turned into ice cubes - but I really would love to go back for that loop around the Tidal Basin (where my brain went numb). If you'd like to check out the "Monuments and Landmarks Loop" we did, here is the route with a map.

I had planned to get a picture of the bus (ideally with us in front of it) but by the time we got back to Union Station, I was close to tears over not being able to feel my body and the kids weren't in much better shape. And of course, my phone was dead. But here is an artist's rendering:

Eleanor Hood (b. 2006)
The Bus Tour, 2016

While I don't typically feel comfortable doing a blind interpretation...I believe the yellow surf board-looking thing in front of the bus is the Washington Monument.

A few hours later when we all started to regain use of our limbs again, we agreed that it was a great tour. We highly recommend City Sights! Just not when it's 20 degrees outside.


  1. So you're not even going to wait until summer to start this tourist mom thing, huh? Will your trip include Paris?

    1. I WISH! Maybe if we make it across the country in one piece we can attempt "abroad". One of my best friends will be in France next month - so jealous!